Next year, when Nathalie Lastreger receives her ordination as a Masorti (or Conservative) rabbi from the Schechter Rabbinical School in Israel, she expects her parents to attend the ceremony, but probably not her siblings.
Lastreger, 47, was married to an Orthodox rabbi. They were together for seven years and had three children — now all grown — before she made the decision that her evolving religious sensibility was incompatible with her role as a haredi rebbitzin.
Lastreger studied for two years at the Tehuda program for pluralistic Jewish leadership and was a leader with the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at The Hebrew University.
Divorced and remarried, she now lectures and leads pre-army year programs throughout Israel, dealing, she said, with an age group at a crucial point in their moral development.
“The more religious I became, the more I became a rebel inside,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “It took time, but I began to realize I am not Orthodox, and I cannot let this community define what is acceptable for me in my religion.”
Lastreger, in the United States for a six-week stay this summer, has been sharing her experiences, and leading services and discussions as a guest at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell (see sidebar).
CAI educational director Susan Werk said the congregation is finding their French-Israeli guest fascinating and inspiring.
Lastreger said that for her, one of the most important events is the screening on Wednesday, July 23, of Purity. The documentary about the mikva, or ritual bath, in some ways embodies her own combination of tradition and freedom. The video, made 11 years ago, features Lastreger herself and several other Israeli women, some of whom regard the monthly immersion in the mikva as archaic and demeaning and others who regard the practice as a beloved, uplifting affirmation.
Lastreger herself treasures the practice and would like to see its popularity growing among less observant Jews. She rejects the notion that it is about women’s impurity. “This is about the power of rebirth. It is a magnificent thing,” she said.
Lastreger was born in Paris, and attended an Orthodox Jewish day school there. Her family made aliya when she was 10, and — faced with a choice between Israel’s secular schools and a religious track much stricter than the one in France — she chose the latter. That path, Lastreger explained, led them all to become much more observant.
But she was always “a troublemaker,” she recalled. “I was always asking so many questions. I wanted to understand.” Eventually, she stopped asking questions of her rabbi because they led nowhere, but she didn’t know where else to turn. “I knew nothing about Conservative or Reform Judaism. There was such demonization of non-Orthodox. We were told they were doing such huge damage to the Jewish people.”
When she left her husband, her twin son and daughter were six, and her younger son was three. “Divorce is difficult anyway,” she said. “Today it’s easier, but then to be a single woman in an Orthodox environment was unusual, and with kids….”
Every Friday, she took the children to her parents in Haifa, so they could hear her father recite the Kiddush. “Till today, for the High Holy Days, my kids still go to them in Haifa,” she said.
She started her academic studies, graduating cum laude in political science from The Hebrew University.
She is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, and regularly joins the services of the Women at the Wall, with whom she served for a couple of years as communications director.
Now happily remarried, and living in Mevaseret Zion, the Jerusalem suburb known with a rare distinction. “Everyone always says to me, ‘Oh, that’s near the kosher McDonald’s,” Lastreger said.
She is deeply committed to spiritual development and the pursuit of social justice for women and minorities. It’s a combination that one of her sisters finds completely unacceptable. “She doesn’t see that real love of Torah that brings me every morning to a 6:30 minyan,” Lastreger said. “She thinks I’m trying to be like a man.”
The other sister, also Orthodox, is much more accepting, and even lets her big sister babysit for some of her eight children. “Her kids love their meshugena aunt,” Lastreger said.
She finds the religious openness in the United States — “all the different ways of coming to a Jewish identity” — energizing, but said she would not consider making America her home.
“My family and my friends are in Israel, and I have to believe there is a future there,” she said. What’s more, her younger son and his wife are about to have their first child.
And, hard as it has been to witness from so far away the renewed conflict with Gaza, she is optimistic about life in Israel. “Change will come, maybe with the next generation,” she said. She hopes to help bring more non-religious Israelis back to Judaism and to make the country’s religious climate, currently dominated by Orthodoxy, more pluralistic. It’s a shift she sees as crucial for the survival of the Jewish state, and for maintaining its bond with Jews in the Diaspora.